The Great Animation Debate – Page 2

Sue Crockford drew a parallel between animation and drama which is also very difficult to fund. “Channel 4 has been working with six European countries to set up co-productions, specifically in the area of drama but also talking about animation. Those involved are the Scandinavians, West Germans, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, Austrians and ourselves. Over the last eight months we have slowly managed to work together on an expensive drama co-production. Part of the ethos has come because they are interested in working themselves away from American products. To some extent it is trying to establish an identity. English kids know more about Chicago and New York than they do about Switzerland or France.”
While there are the obvious benefits of creating more work for British animators, Peter Murphy wanted to know if it was lust market forces that make British animation more acceptable.

An ACTT representative assured him their concern was as much with the quality of the animation as with the protection of the workers. “I think there is something very wrong with the American animation we have now. It is taken down to the lowest common denominator, storylines are minimal, characterisations are negligible. Nothing actually comes of watching these programmes except a lot of dynamism and a lot of advertising.

“A French series called Robostory was shown recently and it was just the opposite. It was Sci-Fi but it actually had a storyline offering intelligent comment, it had wit, none of which are found in current American cartoons.

Canadian, David Bell, whose company Nelvana created the Care Bears, found the comments about the difficulty of selling certain films to television very similar to those expressed at meetings in Canada. “The problem is not precisely American animated children’s programmes, some of the animation is made off-shore, wherever there is a reasonably priced studio available.

“Even the American networks cannot afford to cover the cost of producing this animated material, so a new funding has come from toy companies. Products are developed in consultation with toy companies, then an animated series based on these is pitched at the American commercial television network. The content and story are no longer created at the animation studio, they come from the toy company that can subsidize or underwrite the cost of the series. American television is caught in its own Saturday morning trap of turning out hours of toy-orientated series, financed solely by advertising revenue.

“Independent producers do not have access to the American commercial network, except occasionally at holiday time when a ‘special’ may be produced. They have to struggle just as much as you to get access because in North America, with the exception of PBS, we never see any of the type of animation which is showing at festivals. The toy-animation interface has created a horrible system, nobody can afford to make animation on their own.

Peter Murphy accepted that some companies have to look at merchandising as a way to develop a series but the thrust of the series should come first. “The ITV committee feel quite insulted, as programme makers, by the fact that the manufacturers have an in-house stable of conceptualizing, storyline people, or whatever, who are trying to create things based on the saleability of the toy.”

Janice Cooper insisted they should be arguing that animation needs proper funding without merchandising. “However crudely or however subtly animation is tied, even if it is interesting or educational in itself, it makes children want expensive toys. In these circumstances, it means that minority views could not be represented because they are not so saleable.”

Bob Godfrey, producer and director of Henry’s Cat, confirmed the present need for merchandising, even with a very successful series. “We have made six hours of Henry’s Cat over the last five years. Our team is very small, we have never used more than eight people. Each 15 minute episode costs £25,000 to make and we get £2,225 from BBC television, so the rest of the money has to be made up from merchandising. We’ve had a very good partnership with our merchandisers and we simply could not produce this series without the extra revenue. However, even after five years the merchandising money has only paid for the series, we haven’t actually made a profit.

“Nobody, by any stretch of the imagination could say Henry’s Cat is animated with Disney precision, because we just don’t think that way. It is a great mistake to apply the Disney criteria to all animation, whether it be for the cinema screen or the box. Americans don’t seem to mind how crappy the story is — how lousy an entertainment it is – as long as it moves about all over the place in a Disney-like manner. An example of this is An American Tale. It has a story which is an insult to the intelligence of a ten-year old but it moves beautifully and is very well made.”

Peter Murphy was asked if the programmers consider educational content when choosing a programme? “We do. I am an educationalist. Around the table are people who are heads of education in various departments. At present I am developing some programmes that are education orientated but they are not in the animation area.

A teacher commended programmes such as Cartoon Carnival; presented by Lord Charles and Cartoon Time; presented by Rolf Harris, because they contexturise animation for children. “The presentation indicates what the cartoons are about. My children enjoy this.”

An art educator considered it unfortunate that animation subjected children to simple drawings. Much of it is slick, quick and trivial. Art education is having to fight against this lack of style.

A statement sent to the meeting by Rosemary Shepherd, commissioning agent for Channel 4, was read out: “Financial restraints and other forces are leading to a degeneration of quality in children’s television. There should be some action. Animation is caught in a poverty trap. There is rarely enough money to make good enough material to ensure potential profit to recycle back into regenerating further projects. TVC’s Snowman is a local exception which not only proves this rule, it keeps the financiers smiling. What seems to be needed is a structure to pool recourses in order to break this vicious circle. Anne Wood has suggested a charitable trust which could foster young talent, can this idea be progressed somehow?”

Anne Wood asked people to consider why children like animation so much? “It is because animation is the purest art form that can communicate with children. The great animators can communicate with three-year olds. The work of experimental animator Len Lye has been featured at this festival. His vision is so pure. He has written how the visual and sound experiences from his childhood influenced his work. My concern is that children are being denied this experience because it is being bastardised. Toy manufacturers employ researchers to go to children, see how they respond and use those responses in adulterous ways. Take My Little Pony, little girls get pleasure from combing hair, the sensual experience, the whole thing. A manufacturer said: ‘How can we make money out of this?’ Little girls are encouraged to ask for ‘My Little Pony’ toys and everyone says it is nice. That is extremely unsettling to me. It is mediocre but children deserve the best artistic expression available. People do not have respect for this or there would be no rubbish.

“There should be a grant for people who have new ideas to offer in animation, just to break the deadlock, so the great public out there will see the alternatives. No one is aware of the alternative because the alternatives cannot be made.”

The discussion ranged over many other areas including the possibility of screening more mid-European animation; and the comparison between animation and live-action children’s programme costs. Attention was drawn to a USA action group called ACTV (action for children’s television) as it was intended to set up a similar group in Britain to bring pressure on the decision-makers. More information about this endeavour may be obtained from Philip Simpson, Head of the Education Department of the British Film Institute.

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Printed in Animator Issue 22 (Spring 1988)